In the past ten years, there’s been a really fun genre of books that take normally boring academic research in behavioral economics and psychology and package it into a readable, fascinating book. Think Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert, Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or Made to Stick by Chip Heath.
Contagious by Jonah Berger falls into that genre – and definitely lives up to the classics in the field. The book is specifically focuses on why things catch on and why things spread.
The book is particularly interesting (and possible) in the age of the Internet where concepts, media, and stories can spread so fast and so easily. But it’s not limited to just why YouTube videos go viral – he also looks at offline ideas, ads & trends that catch on and spread.
The 6 specific factors he looks at are:
Social Currency – If something makes the sharer look good, it will spread
Triggers – If something can be associated with a routine or context, it will spread (ie, think “Friday” by Rebecca Black)
Emotion – If something generates an extreme emotion – like awe or anger, it will spread
Public – If something is done in public in such a way that people copy the thing, it will spread (ie, think fashion trends)
Practical Value – If something provides a way to improve someone’s everyday life, it will spread (think how to shuck corn properly)
Stories – If something can be part of or packaged as a narrative, it will spread
Usually the biggest viral sensations in our society have several elements of those factors. Diving deep into the what and why of each factor makes up the core of Contagious.
What I Liked
The book was very well-written, engaging, and tightly edited, which is sort of the point of the book since it takes academic research and distills it down into something accessible for the general reader.
Contagious had lots of specific, interesting anecdotes that went a long ways to explaining the subtle nuances of each factor.
It was very relatable. Sharing things & ideas is innately human and we do it all day, every day. Just like other pop psychology books, the topic itself is fascinating to understand your own behavior.
It’s very applicable. You don’t have to be in marketing to want your ideas & things to catch on & spread. Whether you’re a politician, a student, a professor, an entry-level employee – or really any role at all, it’s fun & useful to start & participate in trends. There’s plenty of everyday takeaways form Contagious.
What I Did Not Like
A couple chapters did not focus as much on the academic research as others (notably the ones a bit later in the book like Practical Value). While the anecdotes & explanations were great, the credibility and understanding really came from the academic research. I wished every chapter had the same level of focus.
A couple chapters (notably Triggers & Practical Value) required re-reading of paragraphs to really understand the subtle differences he was drawing. The first read through made me think those factors weren’t too distinct, when on 2nd read they were. Another anecdote or clarity would’ve improved those sections.
Every human has certain built-in psychological biases in our decision-making that are fairly well-understood & known. What is also good to understand is that we also have built-in biases the influences what we share and what grabs our attention.
You can use those factors to help learn how to get your own ideas to catch on & spread in addition to getting a better understanding into culture & your own psychology.